JERUSALEM — Israel's electoral season got off to an early start Wednesday with the announcement by Yitzhak Rabin, a former prime minister from the Labor Party, that he will try to unseat longtime rival Shimon Peres, also an ex-premier, for leadership of the party.
Elections are not scheduled until November, 1992, although the fractious right-wing government led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his Likud Party frequently appears on the verge of collapse. In any event, Rabin is renewing a bitter rivalry that, in Israeli politics, has become the drawn-out equivalent of the Ali-Frazier boxing matches. Rabin, a war hero from the '60s, and Peres, a committed bureaucrat and inveterate political hustler, have been battling one another for more than 20 years.
Rabin tried to upend Peres last fall, but failed when Peres was able to muster support in Labor's central committee. Now, Rabin hopes to cash in on new Labor Party rules that call for the party chief to be chosen by primary rather than through inner-party wrangling.
"I am running for elections," Rabin announced on Israel Radio.
Peres has been unable to get the party into sole possession of the government since 1977, Rabin complained, and it is time for a change. "It's a fact. We haven't formed a government after four elections," Rabin said.
Peres tried to wrest power from Shamir 18 months ago by pulling Labor out of a coalition government with Likud and piecing together a new majority. Peres, who planned on thrusting his new government into peace talks with Palestinians, failed. Shamir reorganized a ruling majority in Parliament without Labor and killed the plan for peace talks. Labor has been in opposition ever since.
Rabin, although favoring talks, opposed Peres' effort to topple Shamir.
Rabin's strategy for gaining power appears to depend on yet-unresolved efforts to reform Israel's electoral system. One change under consideration is the direct election of a prime minister, which would mean that Rabin's personal fortunes would not necessarily ride on the success of the Labor Party at the polls. Labor is given almost no chance of beating Likud in the next elections for Parliament. Rabin, on the other hand, shows up well in head-to-head surveys pitting him against Shamir.
Labor officials announced that the party enlisted 140,000 dues-paying members in a recent campaign who will be able to vote in a primary to be held sometime before the next election.
Rivals for Labor Party Leadership
A look at the two main rivals in Israel's Labor Party : YITZHAK RABIN Political record: Rabin, 69, was prime minister for three years, resigning in 1977 after the discovery of an illegal bank account held in the United States by his wife. As defense minister from 1984-90, he devised a carrot-and-stick policy for handling the Palestinian revolt and conceived a plan for elections in occupied Arab lands. Style: His drive to regain the top, party insiders say, has been hampered by his unwillingness to campaign among the party faithful who have traditionally chosen Labor's leadership. SHIMON PERES Political record: Labor Party leader Peres, 67, was a popular prime minister from 1984-86 in a Labor-Likud partnership that rid Israel of triple-digit annual inflation, oversaw the withdrawal of most troops from Lebanon and normalized ties with Egypt. The more dovish Peres also served as finance minister from 1988-90. Style: Peres revels in backslapping and phone calling among politicos and has built up a loyal core of support. Critics ascribe his present unpopularity to his reputation as a loser and a schemer. The rivalry: The feud between Peres and Rabin helped the rival Likud Party in 1977 to seize power from Labor for the first time in Israel. Likud has held or shared power ever since; Labor has been part of government fewer than six of the intervening 14 years. The outlook: In a primary, Rabin's image as party savior would probably overcome Peres' advantage among Labor leaders. Still, a recent poll showed Likud running far ahead of Labor.